“I was having a nightmare, a flashback,” Baker, a Gulf War veteran, once told an interviewer. “And I woke up with Honor standing on my chest, licking my face.”
He tried to push his service dog away, but Honor persisted.
“He was stopping the nightmare for me,” Baker said.
And so, this summer when he saw his master lying in the flag-draped casket, Honor pushed through the clutch of weeping family members, reared up, placed his paws on the edge and tried to climb in. Unable to comfort Baker, the lanky black dog in the camouflage-patterned vest curled up underneath.
For Baker, the long nightmare was finally over. But Honor was still on duty.
Baker’s quarter-century battle with post-traumatic stress disorder ended on Aug. 19 at a little church in the western North Carolina mountains. Police responding to an alleged hostage situation there did not know it at the time, but it was Baker who’d made the 911 call.
He was both gunman and hostage, and, as he told a friend who was trying desperately to make him surrender, it was time for him to be “put down.” When he fired at the officers, they returned fire, striking him nine times.
Plagued by memories and delusions, Baker took years to even admit that he had a problem. Even after his wife convinced him to get treatment, he never stopped looking for a cure — that “magic pill” that would allow him to go back to work, back to normal.
For a while, he thought Honor was it. In the end, even this bundle of unconditional love wasn’t enough for him.
Still, Honor was never just Wade Baker’s dog — and now there would be others in need of healing.
Baker, a State Center, Iowa, native, enlisted in the Army on Nov. 21, 1988 — nine days after his 18th birthday. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, with his new wife Diane, Baker learned that his unit would be deployed for Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Part of the 1st Infantry Division, they would be “the tip of the spear.”
Baker, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle driver, made it through “the 100-hour war” with barely a scratch. But the invisible injuries inside were massive.
A few days after his return to Fort Riley, Diane called his sister, Laura Thomas, to say that he was having nightmares. He said a dead man was chasing after him, trying to talk to him.
Baker told his sister that, while in the desert, he’d stumbled across an Iraqi soldier and shot him when he reached into his uniform. The man, he later realized, was reaching for photos of his children.
Then there were the burial details.
“The dogs would have dug them up overnight,” he told her. “He talked about fighting over an arm with a dog one time.”
The men began shooting the animals, Baker said.
When Thomas told her brother that he needed professional help, he said that wasn’t an option.
He planned to make the Army a career and feared they would “bounce me out of the military for being a nut job.”
Besides, seeking help was a sign of weakness, he thought. Suffering in silence was the “manly” thing to do — even if that meant “drinking it away” or “drugging it away.”
Somehow, he managed to keep it all hidden. He picked up three good conduct medals and was promoted to sergeant. During the mid-1990s, Baker served back-to-back tours in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.
Then things began to unravel. He attacked a higher-ranking non-commissioned officer and received a letter of reprimand for an incident involving his company commander.
“The anger, the frustration,” he said. “I didn’t know how to control it.”
In November 1998, he “managed to get out with an honorable discharge.”
Moving back to Iowa, Baker got a job as a corrections officer with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department. But he was becoming more distant from Diane and their two girls.
He fell in love with a jail co-worker, Michelle, who was also married and had two sons of her own. They divorced their spouses and married, eventually having two sets of twins of their own.
By 2006, Baker had lost his jail job and was working for a pest-control company. Then in October of that year, fire struck, forcing them to grab the children and flee into the night.
“He said he felt like he was back in war,” Michelle Baker said. “He went downhill really fast after that.”
Baker was having false memories — a dog they never owned, a vacation they never took. And worse. He rushed in one day, ecstatic, after seeing their neighbor out doing yard work. He was convinced that he’d killed the man.
Shortly after the fire, Baker lost the exterminator job. He went to work servicing septic tanks.
Finally, Baker reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2007, but was told it would be several months before he could be seen. He began to see suicide as the only way out.
“You’re playing a game of chess,” he said. “And you realize you’re two moves away from checkmate.”
After a high-speed chase with police, Baker landed in a psychiatric unit. A doctor got him into the Iowa City VA.
“The Nightmares + Flashbacks are more severe in intensity + Frequency,” he wrote in a note from that period. “I see more clearly and I understand what they want. They need me to kill myself to make it rite. This is just the beginning its gonna get worse they want to torture me forever. I am afraid to live or die.”
Baker was finally diagnosed with PTSD. But it would be 2009 before the VA would declare him 100 percent disabled.
Meanwhile, he entered an inpatient program at the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He left early, but while there wrote a poem in which he channeled the feelings of soldiers from past wars.
“They convinced us to Fight For honor + glory
But when they were done with us, the same old story
‘Here are trinkets + medals — Oh wow a parade!
Now Just Forget all the promises made”
On Aug. 23, 2010, at a kennel in Indianola, Iowa, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Bittersweet Formaro whelped a litter of six — four males and two females. Nicole Shumate took the whole bunch, plus one more from another litter.
As executive director of Paws & Effect, Shumate has spent nearly a decade training dogs for service with disabled children and combat veterans. She dubbed this latest group the “military litter” — Anthem, Hero, Justice, Liberty, Merit and Valor.
And, of course, Honor.
Honor had a bit more drive than his siblings. In addition to the standard obedience training, Shumate enrolled him in agility classes to burn off some of that excess energy.
“Honor was always a clown,” she says.
Honor was about halfway through his training when the Bakers’ dog was hit by a car and killed. About that same time, Shumate was giving a talk to a local kennel club, and Thomas convinced Wade and Michelle to go.
By the time it was over, they were all in tears.
Catching Shumate outside, Thomas said, “Please help my brother.”
When Baker met Honor at Paws & Effects’ Des Moines office, the dog was aloof and Baker was stuttering. But Shumate was confident the two would complement each other.
In March 2012, Baker and about a half dozen other veterans reported for training at a military base outside Des Moines. After two days, Baker was agitated and ready to quit.
Then the men and dogs paired up for real-world training. During a mall outing, Baker became anxious. Honor began rubbing against his legs, then climbed up into his lap and let out a big yawn — a calming trick he’d learned.
“And that’s when I realized: ‘Oh. You’re training ME,‘” Baker said.
Honor “graduated” along with his siblings. Baker said he’d already slept more in the two weeks of training than he had in years.
The VA doesn’t pay to provide service dogs for PTSD sufferers. However, the agency is in the midst of a three-year study of the animals’ potential benefits to veterans — or harms, such as possibly distancing themselves from human contact.
While many veterans report a great calming and comforting effect from having a service dog, says Dr. Chris Crowe Sr., a VA clinical psychologist, “there’s a real difference between feeling better and treating these disorders that can derail a person’s life.”
Michelle Baker didn’t need a study to know that Honor was a godsend. The change was immediate — and profound.
Before Honor, Baker would grow anxious if he went to one of the boys’ football games. He’d be a wreck for a week afterward.
“It made him an active member in our family again,” she said.
And it wasn’t just Wade. Before Honor, Michelle Baker felt as if they were all “drowning in an ocean.”
Honor, she said, “was a life preserver who swam to us.”
In a 2012 interview on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program, Baker said Honor was pure love — unconditional and unquestioning.
“He doesn’t care why I’m agitated,” he said. “He’s like, ‘Hey. Something’s not right. Let’s fix it.‘”
Yet even though Baker loved Honor — whom he affectionately called “Tiger” or “Knucklehead” — he couldn’t shake the conviction that his dependence on this dog was proof of his own weakness. Honor’s vest — embroidered with the words “DO NOT PET” — was like “a bullseye on my back,” he said. He declared that Honor was just the “next step” in his recovery.
“I’ve always been looking for that magic pill,” he confessed. “I want to wake up tomorrow and I want to be normal.”
A year after graduation, Baker returned to the training camp to mentor the latest cadre of dog recipients. He sat down with a videographer from Paws & Effect to talk about how Honor had changed his life.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “And it’s not the meds. It’s not the therapy. It’s just everyday living, with him.”
Not long after Baker filmed that interview, however, things got bad again.
A buddy who’d served with him in the Balkans was living near Asheville, North Carolina. Assuring Baker that the VA hospital there was great, he opened his home to his troubled friend and, in December 2013, Baker made the move.
By the following May, things were going well enough that Michelle and the boys decided to follow.
Once again, Baker left the inpatient treatment — saying his family needed him at home. Crowe, the VA psychologist, says the dropout rate for veterans in psychotherapy is 20 percent.
Continuing treatment in one-on-one sessions, he was asked to write a “trauma statement.”
In the six-page handwritten document, Baker told a new story — about a friend who was killed when his vehicle rolled over a mine during the Gulf War’s final push.
“I was covered in blood, all over my face hands neck,” he wrote of his futile efforts to resuscitate the man. He was haunted by a mean joke he’d made moments before.
“I was only kidding + giving him a hard time,” he wrote, “but its the last thing I ever said to him.”
The process left Baker agitated and angry. Michelle became so concerned for the boys’ safety and her own that they moved out this past July — making sure to take all the guns.
She and the kids found a small house, overlooking a pasture with lowing cows. Wade and Honor moved into a single-wide trailer about a mile away.
They still saw or talked to each other every day.
August 19 was the boys’ first day of school. That afternoon, Michelle picked Jack and Kobi up, and went to Wade’s to get some of their things.
As soon as he came to the door, she could tell something was wrong.
“It’s a bad day,” he told her.
As Honor tailed the boys around the trailer, Baker told his wife that he hadn’t slept in days. He began arguing with her, asking why they couldn’t all be together.
When she and the boys went to meet the older twins’ bus, Baker continued his argument by text. Michelle decided not to engage him.
At 3 p.m., he sent a final note.
“I love you,” he wrote. “Always will. Tell the boys I am sorry and that I was weak. I will always be watching them, every touchdown every test every night.”
Michelle called the VA’s crisis hotline.
At 3:08, Baker posted a note on his Facebook page — the one he’d launched in June with a picture of Honor as his profile photo.
“Well I had a good run but it’s time,” he wrote. “I love you all.”
Armed with a .20-gauge shotgun, Baker had driven a couple of miles into the mountains above Clyde to the Maple Grove Baptist Church. He kicked in the front door and called 911.
“There’s somebody here with a gun,” he told the dispatcher in an oddly calm voice. “They’re shooting up everything.”
“Do you know who it is or anything like that?” the dispatcher asked.
“Ah, some crazy son of a bitch,” Baker said, irritated. “I think he’s shot four people already.”
The line went dead.
Danny Lynn Cagle, the boys’ football coach, had spotted Baker’s Facebook post and immediately phoned his friend. Baker kept hanging up, and the coach kept calling back.
He told Baker his sons needed him. Baker said he was holding them back.
“It’s time for me to be put down,” he said.
Officers from four agencies converged on the church. One radioed that he’d been in touch with the crisis hotline, and that Baker had vowed “he would die by law enforcement. Today.”
Baker complained to Cagle that the police were refusing to shoot him.
“You’re about to hear fireworks, buddy,” he said. “Tell the boys I love ‘em.”
His shotgun raised, the veteran walked toward the officers. Cagle heard a bang, then a burst of gunfire.
Officers found Honor at Baker’s trailer — unharmed.
Michelle believes Baker left him behind because he didn’t want him to get hurt — or to try to stop his master.
The faithful dog attended the memorial service, where Susannah Smith, Michelle’s cousin, photographed the bittersweet moment when he curled up beneath the casket. “It was almost as if Honor was saying ‘this is my last watch,‘” she wrote in an email, “and stayed there to protect Wade.”
And Honor was there at the funeral, held in the chapel overlooking the Western North Carolina Veterans Cemetery. The rifle salute sent him leaping into one of the boys’ laps.
Typically, if a recipient dies and the service dog is still young enough, the animal is placed with another veteran or child. But taking Honor from the Baker boys was never an option, Shumate said.
“He’s the last connection that the boys have with their father,” she said. “And I’m sure if we gave the dog the choice, he’d prefer not to be uprooted.”
Michelle Baker said they already owed him more than they could ever repay.
“Honor gave the boys their dad for more years,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “And that’s an amazing gift.”
The camouflage vest has been retired to a hook by the back door. These days, Honor is more pet than service dog, but he still has special powers.
If one of the boys becomes emotional, Michelle said, Honor will rear up and gently press his front paws into his chest. “And they just melt and embrace him.”
She watched on a recent afternoon as the older twins, Mason and Nick, took turns calling the dog, each trying to prove he’s Honor’s new favorite.
She kept some of her husband’s ashes. He had asked that they be scattered at favorite waterfalls and other spots they’d visited. When the boys are ready, she plans to take them to fulfill his last wishes.
And when they do, it will be with Honor.
Allen G. Breed is based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed.